Back when the NBA had its championship games televised at midnight on tape delay, most people considered it “too Black,” God knows what they meant by that at the time. David Stern, who was the commissioner, began building his leadership legacy by bringing Black players and white customers together in America, growing the sport across oceans and language barriers and racial divides. He began doing this with the particular pigmentations of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
Michael Jordan has turned out to be an important and influential voice even though he has been silent throughout his playing career.
Basketball has ever since empowered its Black stars and treated them as partners in a way you still don’t see in football. The quarterbacks that are white are always the ones who get the best broadcasting jobs and TV commercials. The league treats its employees like its the army; the league treats its employees like their artists. You give your most potent people more power. Stern knew, and everyone gets more substantial, as does the allegiance and partnership within it.
With that as a historical context, it was fascinating to watch what mushroomed last week. Some of America’s biggest, most vital Black superstars were trapped inside a bubble, as America felt like it was about to burn again. Colin Kaepernick peacefully knelt before the American flag. Simultaneously, the national anthem was ongoing to protest police brutality– it cost him his career. It proved impossible to get away from the horrifying reality that came out of Wisconsin. A video of a Black man taking seven bullets to the back by police right in front of his family, and there’s another video that went viral of a white 17-year-old with his hands up while carrying an assault rifle after killing two protesters — while police turned a deaf ear.
American history is filled with cities that burned down to the ground when the injustice is this stark, from Watts to Ferguson and Miami. Now it looks like the league players were pissed enough to burn down that bubble and the season and maybe even the sport. They’re probably the ones who would hurt more than anybody else involved. Still, that fact they even considered it says a lot about how much pain they endured.
However, Adam Silver, who learned at Stern’s knee and turned out to be the most progressive commissioner in American sports history, has gotten pretty good at the whole “leading through unprecedented calamity” thing. While our country’s leadership downplayed the virus outbreak, he got America’s attention by closing down his sport right after Rudy Gobert had tested positive. Then, in a virus hotspot, he somehow got basketball up and running successfully again with no precedent on a pandemic protocol to help him.
“if you are sick of hearing about racism, imagine how tired Black people are of experiencing it.”
The reality of Black pain is breaking the status quo of American sports. Even before he could get out of the playoffs first round, though, he was put in a rather difficult position, literally, as the white leader of a Black sport, standing between proud and angry players too angry to play games and all of his sport’s dollars. Do your angry employees believe you have their principles in mind even when your schedule, business, bosses, and money appear to conflict with striking? It is straightforward to have a good relationship when interests are aligned; the actual test of partnerships emerge when they aren’t. Having tamed one virus that had humbled America for many months, Adam Silver was now faced with the one that has affected America for decades.
Jordan is from Wilmington, North Carolina. A Black newspaper in 1898 was burned to the ground, 60 people lost their lives, and the local government that had been elected days earlier was a coup took effect, and white supremacists replaced them. It is still the only coup ever that took place on American soil. For years, whitewashed American history textbooks portrayed the Black victims incorrectly as instigators and the killers as heroes. Sometimes you have to choose a side. Now Jordan is 57, and it is much easier today, but it is nice to see him check into this game finally.
Our country is now so divided that it cannot reach an agreement on science or masks or even what used to be facts, so indeed, frustrated league players would feel like millionaire minstrels by continuing to play uninterrupted. Simultaneously, the dehumanizing discourse around police brutality too often feels like some version of this: